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How productive a divided government can be


Sometime after the Thanksgiving holiday, President Biden plans to sit down with the new leaders of what will be a divided Congress - a Republican-led House and a Democrat-led Senate.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I'm prepared to work with my Republican colleagues. The American people have made clear, I think, that they expect Republicans to be prepared to work with me as well.

KELLY: Biden says he is open to their ideas, but he has already drawn red lines through a bunch of them. To talk about how productive divided government can be, I'm joined by congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales - hey there, Claudia...


KELLY: ...And our White House correspondent, Tamara Keith. Hey, Tam.


KELLY: Claudia, you kick us off. House Republicans, who are about to run things in the House - they've spent a lot of time detailing their plans for this new Congress. What are they?

GRISALES: Yeah. So in terms of legislation, they are looking at bills that would address the IRS, the border crisis, other issues, and they've talked a lot about a series of investigations they want to launch through the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees. In part, they want to look into President Biden himself, connections such as his son, Hunter Biden, and his business dealings. And another individual they want to look into is Dr. Anthony Fauci.

KEITH: Yeah, and let me just say, Dr. Fauci was at the White House this week for his final press briefing, and he was asked about this, and he said he would gladly participate. He's gone before Congress many times before, and he said he's not really worried about anything they might throw at him.

KELLY: Let me stay with the White House and how people who are working inside it or running it might be approaching this new era. I mean, President Biden would obviously have preferred, Tam, that Democrats kept control of both chambers. That is not happening. How is the president - how is his administration approaching what is presumably going to be a more antagonistic relationship?

KEITH: They have added people to the White House counsel's office whose entire job is to deal with these expected investigations. That includes being responsive to queries that they consider legitimate. But already, they've made clear that they think at least some of the investigations being floated are based on conspiracy theories and aren't worth being taken seriously. President Biden implied at his press conference earlier this month that he thinks Republicans are going to overreach with the investigations and look like they aren't working on the concerns of Americans. And some Republicans just elected to swing districts are voicing that, too, saying, you know, we were elected to deal with inflation.

As for legislation, President Biden has expressed an openness to working with Hill Republicans in a bipartisan fashion. And, you know, he's a big believer in bipartisanship, but there may be limits to how much can actually get done. He says he looks forward to meeting with congressional leaders. But at this point, no date has been set for that meeting.

KELLY: Claudia, jump in here on that question of legislation. Are there some bills this new Congress has to take up - has to pass - regardless of this new divided government?

GRISALES: Right, definitely, there are some must-pass bills they have to take up next year. This includes government funding - legislation that has to be addressed every year to keep the government's lights on. And as we know, Congress is dealing with that dilemma right now, as we're seeing the government operate under a temporary funding bill. And that is something they're going to address with a permanent deal, Congress hopes, by the end of the year. But it's also a reminder that, even with Democrats leading both chambers, they still have had issues reaching this permanent deal for funding. So it's a reminder that, when next year comes and House Republicans are in charge of that chamber and they need to reach a deal on funding, it's going to be tricky. Another major issue is the debt limit. That's going to be a concern by perhaps next summer. And if it's not addressed by both chambers, then we're looking at a threat of default.

KELLY: I was thinking about that threat and the debt ceiling. Republicans have said they would like to use the debt ceiling - the deadline over it - to extract concessions from Biden. Tamara Keith, how worried is the White House about that?

KEITH: Well, leading into the midterms, the White House was talking about the debt ceiling a lot and saying that Republicans would, you know, hold it hostage to extract cuts to Medicare and Social Security. And many Democrats who lived through the debt ceiling debacle of 2011 have been pushing the president and Congress to hurry up and pass legislation to take that issue off the table. The White House continues to say that the debt ceiling shouldn't be used in this way to extract concessions. But at the same time, they're taking sort of a passive approach to it, saying that they would welcome Congress addressing the debt ceiling. But they aren't really getting any more specific than that - whether they would like it permanently done away with or raised so high that it wouldn't be an issue for the next two years. They're just not getting into those specifics.

KELLY: I want to just note that we're not quite at the 118th Congress yet. We still got another few weeks of this lame duck period. Democrats still have control for another month or so. What are they hoping to accomplish?

KEITH: Their ambitions are, well, not that ambitious. There had been talk about trying to do a DREAM Act for the young and not-so-young-anymore immigrants who came to the country as children. And that seems to be off the table now. What the president has said that he wants to be able to do is sign a same-sex marriage bill that recently advanced in the Senate on a bipartisan basis. The administration is also asking for funding for Ukraine and COVID supplemental funding that they'd like soon, as well as the president has made clear he wants to sign an Electoral Reform Act to clarify that the vice president, in fact, cannot overturn the results of a presidential election - the one reform that has come through Congress in a semi-bipartisan way, aimed at removing the ambiguity that allowed January 6 to happen.

KELLY: Ah. Claudia, last word - are there areas of legislation that might get lost in the new era of Washington gridlock?

GRISALES: Right. Yes, we saw a tremendous amount of traction on major Democratic-led initiatives, from pandemic relief to massive infrastructure efforts under the first two years of Biden's term. Those days are largely gone. So it will be more of an offense versus defense game that we'll see on Capitol Hill probably for the next couple of years.

KELLY: That is NPR's Claudia Grisales and Tamara Keith. Thanks to you both.

KEITH: You're welcome.

GRISALES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.